BY KEITH JACKSON
IN AUGUST 2007, former Bougainville District Commissioner Bill Brown MBE [pictured in 1968] wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra pointing point out a major error that had appeared in the book, Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, Australia and Papua New Guinea 1966 – 1969.
The book was composed largely of official documents and, very much like the Wikileaks cables of more recent times, allowed rare insights into the words and actions of Australian politicians and bureaucrats in the three or so years it covered.
But when Bill Brown read the book he was particularly struck by documents that covered the time he was serving his nation in colonial Bougainville. It was a turbulent time and the role of the kiap in trying to educate people about what would happen to their land with the arrival of the Panguna copper and gold mine was a particularly difficult one.
There were about 20 kiaps directly involved with the establishment of the mine and, without exception, they were a voice of knowledge and reason in the face of corporate intransigence, academic insouciance and an Australian government driven by the desire to give PNG resource exploitation at all costs.
The views of these men is perhaps best articulated in an interview kiap Ross Henderson gave to Film Australia in 1969, when he said:
It did not surprise anyone that the Moronis were angry over the land situation. It is not just a block of dirt to them - it is part of the body and the soul. Their whole social system is based on land. The land is owned by the ancestors now dead, the present occupiers and by the unborn generations to come. The occupiers have the right to use the land, to lease, but not to destroy.
From as early as 1966 we have been telling all the villages as much as we knew of the project, and tried to put them into the picture …. It was difficult even for us to envisage what was going to happen. You can imagine how bewildering it must have been for the Moronis.
But many subsequent writers on those times, times which led to the bloody civil war in Bougainville that resulted in something like 20,000 deaths, compounding their lack of first hand research with a too easy acceptance of official documents, did the kiaps a great disservice.
The kiaps were blamed for things they did not do, and accused of doing things that, knowing what they knew, they would never have done.
So in 2007, so many years later, when Bill Brown saw the errors entrenched in the official documents of that earlier time, he decided to tackle Canberra and get the bureaucrats to address the errors and distortions of the documents.
The initial response from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was encouraging:
You are quite correct in your analysis of the errors which flow from the mistaken heading to Document 307. … Sir David, with whom I have friendly relations, has made me aware of the issue and we've come to an agreement on how to correct the record.
When we release these publications, we are aware that they will be carefully scrutinised and we do our best to make them accurate. But anything of this size and complexity will never be perfect. ... All this means that we need to be courageous enough to keep putting things into the public domain and also that we should be humble enough to welcome observations from our readers - and particularly from historical participants such as yourself.
Well, pretensions to accuracy, courage and gratitude were soon betrayed by the reality of a Department that would prefer to leave lies on the record than to admit error. As Bill Brown writes in the paper Bougainville Texts - Some Flaws In The Shards, which you can download below:
In 2007, Sir David Hay was told that a clarification would appear in the next volume, to be published in a year or so, and that a correction would be put on the DFAT website in the immediate future. Sir David waited, and he died. If he had not, he would still be waiting. Foreign Affairs updated their website, but made no correction and did not admit the error.
Even today, the Department is still promoting the book “Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, Australia and Papua New Guinea 1966 – 1969” as “a detailed record of the classified communications that informed and determined Australian policy in Papua New Guinea between 1966 and 1969.” There is no admission of error or flaw, and there is no correction.
“People have suggested that the Australian government has been niggardly in acknowledging the role played by kiaps,” writes Bill elsewhere. Niggardly? That’s putting it mildly. The term I’d use is “bloody disgraceful”.
Anyway, you can read Bill Brown’s compilation here – an invaluable contribution to the history of a troubled island and a welcome clarification of the kiaps’ role in those years between the mid sixties and mid seventies when they did their level best for the people of Bougainville.
Best turned out to be not good enough, but the blame cannot be sheeted home to those 20 or so kiaps. You’ve got to look a lot further south for that.